Caught in the Net

OUR MAN IN WASHINGTON: A friend in Chicago is starting a group to reintroduce recovering Internet addicts to inter-personal relationships - or, in other words, real people
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The Independent Culture
The world's most widely read and experienced agony aunt, Ann Landers, once told me she had received more mail on how should you hang toilet paper than any other topic. Should it run down next to the wall, or away from it and nearer the user? No conclusion, alas, was ever reached and the matter remains one of bitter controversy.

But now Landers is dealing with a new American problem of the Nineties - one that has had a "staggering" response among her many millions of readers, "Mark my words, Ann," one woman wrote to her, "mid-life and the Internet are an explosive combination that means double trouble." Landers agreed: it sounded, she said, as though the woman's husband was addicted to the Net.

To another reader she replied; "I'm afraid more people are interested in cybersex than bird-watching." A respected Democratic senator, Patrick Leahy, was so enraged that he wrote in to complain, but received short thrift from Landers: "The Internet is tailor-made for con men, the lonely and the bored. The word from here is 'Beware'."

I have been there, I admit it. For a few weeks, I was addicted to the Net. The other day, I found myself downloading a document about what American doctors call Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD). I learnt from this perfectly serious medical document that I was prone to "psychomotor agitation", anxiety, obsessive thinking and fantasies about the Net, and voluntary or involuntary typing movements of the fingers. I also discovered I had been placing my marriage in jeopardy.

One man who told his wife, "It's the computer or me," found himself swiftly turfed out on to the street in favour of the Net. Thousands of American couples, I was told, have now split up because one or the other is obsessed with the Net, with some often spending 40 hours or more a week at the keyboard.

It was a friend who brought me to my senses. "Anyone who downloads that kind of document has a problem," she said. "You are addicted." My marriage remained solidly intact, but my wife was hardly happy to find me coming to bed at six in the morning because I had been surfing all night (one moment of pure excitement was to discover I could listen to Virgin Radio, live, on my computer here - something I wouldn't have the slightest interest in doing at home), I did have an excuse, however. In the spring I had to spend some time in hospital and I decided to recuperate by becoming master of my computer rather than vice versa. Well, that, at least, is my story. From then on, I found the Net a source of unending fascination and became a leading candidate for the Private Eye bore who can go on about nothing else. I even subscribed to the magazine Internet Life.

My greatest thrill by far, though, was to read the next day's Times and Daily Telegraph (the only two British papers comprehensively published on the Net). Because of the time difference, the two papers were available on the Web by three in the morning British time, meaning that sometimes even before 10 o'clock each evening here I could feast myself on stories such as "Gatting Fails Again" or "Cornish Dog Rescued from Cliff." In the early days, I totally flummoxed my friend Ian Brodie (of the Times) by faxing him a detailed critique of a story he had written before it had even hit the streets of Britain.

What is so seductive about the Net, of course, is that you create and enter your own artifical world from the moment you sit in front of the computer. In my case, I had been treated by buffoonish doctors who terrified me with a series of false diagnoses. I needed to retreat for a while. So how do you escape? You simply switch on, hear the dialling and that comforting whoosh when the connection is made, and real life disappears. There are no real people to complicate life, no human conflicts, nothing but an unending source of information and artificial life that you control. A friend in Chicago is starting a group to reintroduce recovering IAD patients to "inter-personal relationships" - or, in other words, to real people.

Landers, of course, is right when she says the Net is used by perverts and cybernuts. An anthropologist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, investigating IAD, came across a man who told her he was leaving his wife for a woman in Pittsburgh with whom he was having a magnificently satisfying, erotic cyber-relationship. The woman's password was "Hotpants". The anthropologist discovered that Hotpants lived in Florida and was actually an elderly man in an old folks' home who was getting his kicks (and, doubtless much- needed attention) that way.

Despite all this, I decided to investigate what - if anything - the Net had to say about the Great Toilet Paper Debate. I found scores of pages devoted to toilet paper and the problems that so worry the great American nation. There were even designs of the different ways toilet paper could hang. (In this case the anonymous contributor concluded: "Personally, I prefer the loose end hanging down in front, since it is easier to grab.") Hardly the kind of wicked, perverted cybersex that disturbs Landers and her readers. Yet I cannot deny that, with or without Landers's warnings, I myself very nearly fell into the traps of the latest disease to mobilise the US medical establishment